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Jeff Whetstone at Karyn Lovegrove Gallery @ Hudson Salon

Jeff Whetstone spent a good part of 2007 underground, creeping through the caverns and passageways that form vast networks of caves in Tennessee and Alabama. The North Carolina-based photographer took an assistant with him, along with loads of battery-operated equipment, water, food and supplies, often staying beneath the Earth's surface for days at a time.

The result of these subterranean journeys is "Post-Pleistocene," an impressive series of large-format photographs that is so strangely gorgeous it takes a while to acclimate your eyes -- not to mention your mind -- to what you're seeing. At the Karyn Lovegrove Gallery @ Hudson Salon, 10 color prints depict a world both primitive and contemporary: Hellish beauty fuels the imagination's dark ramblings, often kicking them into high gear by forcing Surrealism and photojournalism into uncomfortable alliance.

Except for "Entrance to Wolf Tever," which shows the mouth of a cave -- and recalls Gustave Courbet's paintings of similar subjects -- no daylight appears in any of Whetstone's pictures. Nor do any people. The emptiness and the artificial illumination make the rocky passageways look like abandoned stage sets for a post-apocalyptic production of Dante's "Inferno."

In some, nature steals the show. Organically formed rocks and naturally carved outcroppings twist and turn through space with a sort of sculptural forcefulness. The crude graffiti and roughly scrawled messages left by previous visitors are no match for the thrust and powerful effect of the variously textured and exquisitely weathered terrain.

In other images, humans get the upper hand. The neon tints of spray-painted skulls, hearts, arrows, emblems, figures, names and dates form a mismatched patchwork of signs and symbols that brings the dynamism and danger of urban streets to nature's bowels. Ladders and ropes, placed over difficult passages by earlier adventurers, reveal that although Whetstone has traveled far off the beaten path, he has not been alone in that.

The mixture of nature and culture is rich. "Lot's Way" resembles a ready-made Cy Twombly painting; "Driphole" evokes Aaron Siskind's abstract photographs; "Johnny" has the haunting melancholy of a word-sculpture by Jack Pierson; "Upper Room" echoes Jean-Michel Basquiat's raw paintings; and "Hubbard's Cathedral" looks like a piece of image-and-text Conceptualism that has fallen on hard times.

Some of the oldest traces of man Whetstone has photographed are tally marks made during the Civil War, when many of the caves were mined for saltpeter, an essential ingredient of gunpowder. Escaped slaves hid, worked and lived in other underground chambers.

Whetstone's pictures also recall the caves of Lascaux, France, and Altamira, Spain, where our distant ancestors left their own versions of graffiti. The contrast between the raw elegance of their handmade marks and the whiplash primitivism of the cave paintings in Whetstone's photographs makes you wonder if civilization is all it's cracked up to be.

Karyn Lovegrove Gallery @ Hudson Salon, 500 S. Hudson Ave., L.A., (323) 525-1755, through Oct. 25. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.karynlovegrovegallery.com

A thoughtful look at casual violence

At a time when the sheer volume of violence in video games and movies has gone through the roof, yet images of suffering and death in war-torn Iraq and Afghanistan are few and far between, the room full of 10 bronze sculptures in Julian Hoeber's third solo show at Blum & Poe makes itself right at home. An even larger gallery, packed with 15 big paintings on paper, raises similarly unpleasant questions about the morality of mindlessness.

These are old subjects, typically trotted out by second-rate artists who would rather be activists and are so convinced that the two jobs go together that they can't see the differences between them. In contrast, Hoeber's works probe the links between America's voracious taste for fantasy violence and its smug aversion to the real thing without serving up easy answers.

Never pretending to be above it all, or to know it all, Hoeber's incisive art puts the contradictions and hypocrisy front and center.

His super-realistic heads are no strangers to sensationalism.

Each began as a clay model of a man's head that Hoeber took out to the desert and, using large-caliber handguns and low-gauge shotguns, blasted vigorously -- not quite to smithereens but with more energy and enthusiasm than would be necessary to kill a man.

Hoeber then used the malleable, flesh-like clay to make molds to cast the heads in bronze. The polished pieces are monstrous. Each life-size sculpture sits atop the black base of a mirrored, chest-high pedestal like a demonic meteorite from hell's far reaches, or a perfectly preserved consequence of actions that cannot be undone or forgotten but haunt the memory and lead to all sorts of post-trauma sicknesses.

Hoeber's roughly 4-foot-square works on paper are equally creepy, if a bit more abstract. Each features a battered Op-style spiral onto which he has grafted other styles of representation: trompe l'oeil illusionism, realistic portraiture, image-and-text Conceptualism, Dadaist collage, Color-Field painting, gestural Expressionism and Pop graphics. Like Hoeber's heads, his images are hard to look at and even more painful to contemplate.

Blum & Poe, 2754 S. La Cienega Blvd., L.A., (310) 836-2062, through Oct. 18. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.blumandpoe.com

Whoa -- it's all so out of whack

Richard Misrach's new photographs look a lot like the works for which he is famous: unbelievably beautiful landscapes sometimes punctuated by the unbelievably ugly byproducts of post-industrial society -- toxic runoff, chemical seepage and other scary mutations of nature's balance.

But something different is simmering in Misrach's 11 meticulously detailed, powerfully scaled photographs at Marc Selwyn Fine Art. The sense that everything on the planet is irreparably out of whack suffuses these awesome pictures of simple things -- the sea and the sky, the ground beneath our feet and the tangled branches overhead.

With little fanfare, a delicate touch and a swift kick in your perceptual habits, Misrach makes the most reassuringly familiar elements of the environment look alien, menacing in their potential to be malignant, even contagious or as difficult to hide from as radioactive matter. Rather than giving viewers glasses with rosy lenses, Misrach hands out goggles through which the entire Earth appears to be poisoned and all the more beautiful for it.

His skills as a colorist come to the fore, causing oceans to turn into deadly pools of mercury, skies to turn leaden and a harsh chunk of desert to become as diaphanous as a silk scarf. In the largest photograph, the sea vaporizes, becoming a cloudy afterglow of a glorious sunset.

In other images, a solid rock wall appears to dissolve into a shallow tidal pool; light seems to freeze into icy crystals; and newly sprouted leaves turn blood red, their molecular structure seemingly undone by the magic Misrach performs in the darkroom.

Although he messes with the tones and the tints of his pictures, Misrach never breaks his art's bond to the real world. That's why his images are compelling. They tell the truth, no matter how complex it is.

Marc Selwyn Fine Art, 6222 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 101, L.A., (323) 933-9911, through Oct. 18. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.marcselwynfineart.com

An artist's record of his daily life

Sometimes the most captivating art comes out of conversations artists have with themselves. But that happens only when an artist has something to say to himself -- or, better yet, when his sympathies and sensibilities are pulled in different directions and he is sufficiently sensitive, objective and mature to understand the pluses and minuses of each.

At the Christopher Grimes Gallery, Max Jansons' wonderfully intimate little paintings outline a finely nuanced conversation that is made up of five or six distinct voices.

The 18 page-size oils on linen that wrap around the four walls of the main gallery fall into five groups. They're efficiently simplified pictures of plants, breasts, game boards, meandering paths with red crosses marking various intersections and pictures within pictures.

The paintings in the last and biggest group split into two subgroups: abstract flashcards featuring geometric configurations, and irregular windows that open onto imaginary landscapes.

Some seem to have their feet firmly planted in both camps.

That's part of the pleasure of Jansons' exhibition, which he has titled, plainly enough, "Pleasure." All his works are painted as if their main purpose is to hold painstaking deliberation and casual ease in balance.

You get the sense that Jansons does not need a great reason to begin a painting -- that a potted plant on a windowsill, a child's game on a kitchen table or a companion's tan lines in the shower are enough to get his juices flowing. But it's also clear that he needs lots of good reasons to keep painting and, more important, even more really good reasons to show his finished works.

These characteristics give his curiously engaging paintings their sense of being resolved and open-ended, taut and relaxed, precise and playful.

Jansons may be marching to the beat of his own drum and talking to himself, but he also leaves viewers plenty of entries into the improvised dramas.

Christopher Grimes Gallery, 916 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 587-3373, through Oct. 11. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.cgrimes.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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